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Mrs T’s rogues’ gallery

Sholto Byrnes recalls the allies and hangers-on who prospered under Thatcher

Alfred Sherman

A former Communist, expelled for “Titoist deviationism”, a Balkans expert, journalist and polemicist, Alfred Sherman was arguably the main provider of the intellectual basis of Thatcherism. He co-founded the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) with Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in 1974 and, as its director, in effect sidelined the official Conservative Research Department. Senior Tories got used to being overruled with the words “but Alfred says . . .” An extremist – he had bracing views on immigration and later advised the Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic – and a difficult, prickly man, he left the CPS in 1984, complaining that his critics had represented him as “an amalgam of Père Joseph, Svengali and the Elders of Zion”. Nonetheless, Thatcher gave him a knighthood and said of him: “We could never have defeated socialism if it hadn’t been for Sir Alfred.”

Alan Walters

Described by his boss as “radical, fearless” and “the finest of friends”, Professor Sir Alan Walters was twice personal economics adviser to Thatcher, on the first occasion helping spoon out the harsh medicine of the 1981 Budget (which raised taxes in the midst of recession), and on the second playing a part in the row that helped force her from office. A stern monetarist, Walters disagreed with the Exchange Rate Mechanism, calling it “half-baked”, but the chancellor, Nigel Lawson, supported it. Asked by Neil Kinnock if she would get rid of Walters, Thatcher replied: “Advisers advise, ministers decide.” It wasn’t enough for Lawson, who resigned within hours. Unbending, outspoken and arrogant (his coffee mug bore the words “Quiet – genius at work”), Walters described a later chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, as being without “spine, knowledge and drive”. Some thought he had aimed to provoke Lawson’s resignation; Walters himself ended up standing for Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party.

Charles Powell

If New Labour was guilty, as is often charged, of politicising the civil service, the precedent was set by Charles Powell. Technically a junior private secretary to the prime minister, his crucial behind-the-scenes role during the Westland affair in 1986 emphasised how much more important this “foreign affairs adviser” truly was: in fact, he and Bernard Ingham (Diary, page 9) virtually ran No 10 between them, to the irritation of many cabinet ministers. Some suggested that Powell, a man of charm and intelligence, was the son she had never had. Certainly he remained close to her, even when working for her successor (his brother Jonathan occupied a similar role in the Blair government). When Thatcher left office and there was a plumbing problem in her new home, it was to Powell she turned. He advised using a book called the Yellow Pages. When she called back she was still in shock at the fees charged.

Mark Thatcher

The “boy Mark” as in his late twenties when Downing Street became the family home, and whereas his father, Denis, did his best to keep out of the limelight, the son revelled in it despite the embarrassment he caused. In 1982 he made world headlines when he managed to get lost during the Paris-Dakar motor rally, causing his mother to cry openly during the six days he was missing. She doted on “Thickie Mark”, as he was known at Harrow, even when his business interests caused her trouble. In 1984, questions were asked in the House about his role as a fixer for British companies in the Middle East, and he is said to have profited from the £20bn al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Before the 1987 election Mark asked Bernard Ingham how he could best help out in the campaign. According to Alan Clark, the response was: “Leave the country.”

Keith Joseph

The “Mad Monk”, a cabinet minister under Ted Heath, was going to be the right’s challenger for the party leadership in 1975 until he made an unfortunate reference to “human stock” in a speech that, to many, smacked of eugenics. Probably to his relief, his protégée Margaret Thatcher then stood and won instead. As her head of policy, Joseph, a baronet and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, formulated what became known as Thatcherism. “It was only in 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism,” he wrote, referring to the intellectual crisis that led him to reject the Butskellite consensus and embrace monetarism and the free market. “I had thought that I was a Conservative, but now I see I was not really one at all.” A rather other-worldly figure, dry, doleful and unspinnable, Joseph was not a great success in government and left in 1986. But as Thatcher said to him on his resignation: “You more than anyone else . . . were the architect who shaped the policies.”

Norman Tebbit

The “Chingford Skinhead” was, in the words of Michael Foot, Thatcher’s “semi-house-trained polecat”, licensed to appeal in the crudest terms to the authoritarian, nationalistic, lower-middle and working-class voters who were the core Thatcher Conservatives. The inventor of the “cricket test”, and for ever associated with the slogan “On yer bike”, Tebbit joined the cabinet in 1981 in the reshuffle that sidelined the “wets”, and later became party chairman. He returned to the back benches after the 1987 general election victory to spend more time caring for his wife, Margaret, who had been seriously injured in the 1984 Brighton bombings. Despite their occasional differences – Tebbit was seen as a potential successor, and he knew it – Thatcher “bitterly regretted” losing so pugnacious and like-minded a colleague. Old-style patrician Tories were less impressed. Harold Macmillan once said of him: “Heard a chap on the radio this morning talking with a cockney accent. They tell me he is one of Her Majesty’s ministers.”

Woodrow Wyatt

Cigar-chomping Lord Wyatt of Weeford, the News of the World’s “Voice of Reason”, was a former Labour MP who became an admirer and close friend of Thatcher’s during the 1970s. Flamboyant, somewhat ridiculous – “his whole lifestyle was of an upper-class twit, although he wasn’t one to begin with,” said Bill Rodgers’s wife, Silvia – he nevertheless had real influence. Peers, politicians and captains of industry were regulars at his St John’s Wood salon, and he played an important role in advising Thatcher to allow Rupert Murdoch to buy the Times newspaper titles without reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which could well have blocked the sale. Wyatt claimed in his posthumously published diaries that he spoke to her at length every Sunday morning, and that his friend the Queen Mother was one of Thatcher’s most devoted supporters; the Tory historian Lord Blake was one of many who considered him “a notorious liar”.

Gordon Reece

By her side from her first broadcasts as education secretary, Reece was a television producer who fitted the stereotype of the flashy adman, dressing well and drinking nothing but champagne. His career had been in programmes such as On the Braden Beat and Emergency Ward Ten, and he knew nothing about politics. But he it was who shaped her image in every way. He had her filmed doing the washing-up in a pinny during the 1975 Tory leadership election, advised on her hair and clothes, trained her to lower the pitch of her voice, and selected the Saatchi brothers to handle the party’s account in the run-up to the 1979 election, which resulted in the “Labour isn’t working” campaign. “If we lose the election,” Thatcher joked to him, “I may be sacked, but you will be shot.” He left Central Office in 1980 but continued to advise “the Leaderene”, as Norman St John-Stevas called her. He returned to help with the next two elections and was one of the favoured few invited to Chequers every Christmas.

Cecil Parkinson

Smoothie-chops Cecil was, according to Mrs T’s biographer Hugo Young, “the very first of her protégés . . . socially and politically . . . a kind of fulfilment of the Thatcher ideal”. Plucked from lower office to be party chairman in 1981, Parkinson attracted envy when he became a leading member of the Falklands War cabinet and cemented his place at Thatcher’s side.

Self-made, the son of a railwayman, he personified what the snobbish, waspish Tory Julian Critchley called the “garagiste” tendency of upwardly mobile younger MPs. His charm led to his downfall – on the cusp of being offered the Foreign Office, he had to resign after it came to light that he had fathered a child by his secretary. He later returned to the cabinet, but never regained quite the same influence.

Shirley Porter

The Tesco heiress was considered the Margaret Thatcher of local government as leader of Westminster City Council from 1983-91, although even her fellow grocer's daughter in No 10 might have hesitated to take one of Porter's most notorious decisions - selling off cemeteries for 15p. Called "divisive, pushy and egotistical" by a former Tesco board member, Porter made attempts to ensure Westminster stayed blue that resulted in the "homes for votes" scandal, making her name a byword for corruption. She was accused of gerrymandering after council housing in marginal wards was sold to owner-occupiers deemed more likely to vote Tory. She also forced homeless families to live in tower blocks known to be contaminated with asbestos. After fleeing to Israel, where she was immune from charges, she settled a judgment debt in 2004 by paying £12m and was stripped of the title Dame of the British Empire.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge